MAZI, later ELIZABETH BLAKE (White Earth Anishinabe)
When I was a child, I always knew I was adopted. My family told me from the time I was young. Born in Minneapolis, it took a long time to piece together, but I was the first of five children born to our birthmother. When she was 18, she developed schizophrenia and has spent most of her life in group homes or mental health housing. She was married for many years, but because of her illness, she could not raise any of us siblings.
After my birth, I lived in foster care for many months. It could be that families were reluctant to adopt me because of my birthmother’s history. I don’t know. So those early months are blank. No pictures, and too early for memories.
When my adoptive parents went to an adoption agency, they already had a child by birth that was eight years older than me. He was also blind, and very smart. They told the agency that they wanted to adopt a child because they didn’t want my brother to be an only child. Also my adoptive mother had insulin-dependent diabetes, which was brittle. They hoped to have a child who could help around home, as they had many needs around home. They also told the agency they wanted a daughter, so someone could care for them when they got old.
The social worker asked that they think of at least one reason that was for the benefit of the child. My adoptive father told this as a humorous tale and said, “Well, we had a home to offer and love.” As it turned out they were better at offering a home than love.
When things were good at home, my father would say, “My beautiful little Indian Princess.” I think this was because my skin would get very brown in the summer. I always could relate to being Indian. I don’t know if I was told that I had any Indian heritage.
Throughout childhood my place of peace and refuge was my grandmother’s apartment. She was not demonstrative in her love, but I was always aware that I was loved and cared for with her. I spent lots of time with her, learning to sew on an old treadle sewing machine, making doll clothes, mending, and learning to crochet and cook. She also had a grown blind daughter, my aunt, who lived with her. Part of my time spent there I would go shopping with my aunt, help her crossing streets safely, describing foods in the store, and pulling the wire cart back home. Aunt E. was very independent though, and as an adult, I knew she could navigate her way to and from work and to the store on her own. She would ask the grocery store clerks to help her find foods at the store when grandma or I were not along.
The other place I found solace was outdoors, where life was so quiet and peaceful. For that reason I loved belonging to Girl Scouts, so I could go camping and be in the woods of Minnesota with friends who also loved nature.
We lived in a fine house with a beautiful and bountiful garden. But life inside was punctuated with abuse. There were probably times I did wrong and needed correcting, but the worst of times were when my brother or I were unjustly accused. A few times during my childhood, my father would wake me in the middle of the night, and take me to the living room to be interrogated. The goal was to have me confess that I had done whatever deed he suspected. I’m sure I made many mistakes as a child, but strangely on these occasions at night, I was innocent of his accusations.
My mother was mostly distant. My father, unsure I had seen the signals told me many years later, just before her funeral, “She just couldn’t love you.” But in his own way, I think my father did. I’m grateful for having a much more stable home than my birthparents could have offered.
From the time I was 4, as my father left for work, he would say, “Remember to watch that your mother is okay.” He worried about her having an insulin reaction. She tended to have quite a few—and sometimes to the point of unconsciousness. It could be that because of caring for those in my family, I decided to become a nurse later, even though I loved art and wanted to be an artist.
My grandmother was really my salvation. I feel that if I had not had her nurturing as a child, I may have had many more problems in life. She had faith in me and loved me. It was clear to my cousins also, that I was special to our grandmother. At a family Thanksgiving dinner, a cousin taunted me with, “You are Grandma’s favorite, and you are not even REAL!” The comment was meant to hurt me, but it really made me happy.
I had years of taking the bus by myself to grandma’s. And years of feeling nurtured. Then, when I was 14, my grandmother died of a heart attack. I was devastated. I loved her dearly, and now would not have her apartment as a respite. My sweet, gentle grandmother, wise with few words, gone. Kind and humble, gone. Comfort and respite, gone. We all have probably lost someone close whose presence we miss to the depth of our soul, and for me, it was Grandma Marie.
When I was 17, I graduated from high school. My parents told me that I would need to pay rent as soon as I graduated. I knew I couldn’t go to college or trade school without some savings, so I got a job full-time. I graduated on a Thursday, and started a full-time clerk-typist job on Monday. I did pay them rent for a month, but then realized it was much cheaper to rent a room than live with them, with all the good and bad of being free from family at 17.
Becoming emancipated minor was necessary. In those days, I think you needed to be 21 to sign for your care and be responsible for your debts. Being totally independent was both a little scary and a way to grow up quick. It is not an easy way, but I think young people need to know they can do it all alone if they need to. Just keep trying! Imagine yourself, as you want to be.
For 15 months I worked full-time, saved money, then quit my job to go to nursing school. LPN school was the quickest way I knew to have a job that I could support myself. It took many more years and three degrees to become a pediatric nurse practitioner.
As we walked to school, my friend Kat turned off at Minneapolis College of Art & Design. I smiled and waved, and inside my heart sank, knowing I could not afford to go to art school. Just recently I was able to take art school courses in illustration. It felt like home.
Native Guiding Spirit
Margaret was a dear friend, Anishinabe, Ojibwe teacher and guiding spirit. She helped me find a connection to the culture that felt like home. I took classes and lessons from her on Ojibwe language for most of seven years. She took me along like a daughter to powwows and events in the community. Always I hoped that at these community gatherings I would see someone who looked enough like me that I would know it was a mother, sister, brother, aunt or uncle. I will never know if any of these faces were my close relatives, but they all welcomed me as family. I was blessed to have Margaret show me the way back, and teach me to live life as a verb. She said, “You will notice that most of our words are verbs. We have very little use for nouns. They are the words of solid, stagnating things, not of life, which is always moving.” Miigwetch Margaret for bringing me home, and Miigwetch Gitchi Manido for Margaret and my sense of belonging.
When I had my daughter, I began to think how important having a child was, and realized that my birthmother would probably not forget this experience. I wanted to respect her privacy and whatever life she had now. So I contacted the adoption agency to do a search for birth family. The social worker asked the reason I wanted information and I said mainly, I wanted to know family medical history, and also more about their family history. They said they could give non-identifying information that was about 27 years old, but that might help. The social worker put my file on her desk, and did not let me look at it, and read, “Your birthmother had you when she was 21. She had serious problems with mental health.” At the same time, she was dictating this so that I could have a solid piece of information that I could read again and again, trying to make three-dimensional people from these words and non-identifying descriptions of events. That was all I had for about three years, and it seemed to be enough for a while. She was unable to raise a child, so she made a plan. At some point either the social worker or my parents told me she had schizophrenia and had needed electroshock treatment at some time. She had been a good student in high school, but at age 18 she developed this illness. Her condition was not very good during the pregnancy. The record noted that when she came back for counseling after my birth, she had cared for her hair and appearance and looked better.
They also said that one aunt was a fashion illustrator, and an uncle was an artist. A smile came across my face to think that being an artist could be genetic. It worried me about her mental health issues however. What if the “s” word was genetic too? I couldn’t speak it, or tell anyone. It scared me for years, until I realized it was not happening to my daughter or me.
At the time in Minnesota, finding birth family was not easy, but possible. First I contacted the adoption agency and they spent six months trying to find my birth mother. During that time they did find an aunt who would not share any information without knowing why. The search was officially closed.
A friend told me about a woman who did searches for adoptees. I called her and told her I knew my birth name and mother’s maiden name. She agreed to do the search for $50 to start. If it took longer than she expected, she would charge more for her time. She called me within a few hours and told me that she had spoken to my grandmother and that I could have her phone number to learn more about my mother. It gave me chills to think of real birth family found. The conversation was full of information about the whole family, and she also told me that I had two more siblings, sisters, who were several years younger than me, and had also been adopted when they were toddlers. It was a shock, but I was determined to find them.
Soon afterward I was able to meet my birthmother at a group home for women with schizophrenia. Sad and poignant when she told me, “I am an artist. Would you like to see my work?” “Yes!” I thought, another Van Gogh possibly. She brought me into her shared bedroom, opened a drawer and showed me pages in her Mickey Mouse coloring book. I tried to hide my tears.
Since then I have seen her once. She seems happy, and even caring, but in a very childlike state. At this time, I think she is still living. We write occasionally.
Now the mystical part began. A couple of weeks later, the woman who did the search called me again. She said, “You’ll never believe this, but I talked to your brother, and he called looking for family. He grew up in foster care.”
“No, that couldn’t be MY brother. My grandmother said there were just two other children. Two sisters who are younger than me.”
She said, “Yes, he has the same unusual last name as your birth name. He never lost his birth name because he was in foster care. Call him and find out more.”
This was Frank. Soon afterward we met, he had arranged to get his birth certificate and I now had mine. I expected to see his and find out that he had a different birth mother. It was as much of a shock to see that he was my brother as to see that he had a strong Indian appearance. He said he grew up with many other Native American foster brothers. He was mainly in two foster homes: one from birth—seven, one after that short-term, and another for the rest of his childhood and adolescence.
The first ones he felt were his “real” parents. He was shocked one day when he came downstairs and saw his suitcase packed, his shoes at its side. His mother, the only one he knew, said he was going to another home to live. It took him a long time to get over that.
In his final foster home, he said the foster children were expected to eat meals at a table in a different room from their family. He never felt he was really part of that family. His other foster brothers were lost to him as an adult, and now he wanted to find his real family and his birth parents.
Frank had a seizure disorder that was not well-controlled with the medication he took. His neurologist tried lots of things including a research trial medication. Nothing stopped the seizures. He died at age 38 of status epilepticus, a very long seizure and swelling of his brain. It was so hard to lose him. I was devastated.
I’m thankful that he was able to spend time with our birth mother on and off before he died. He told me once that he had never had a relative who needed him for anything, and so with mixed feelings, he would help her with errands and to get things she needed.
Jody & Terry
In the next few years I also met my sister Jody. She and Terry were adopted together as toddlers. It gave me peace to know that they had each other. These were the two children that our grandmother told me about. When I had asked her about Frank, she said, “There were many years I didn’t have much contact with (Dolores) and so she probably had Frank during those years. She didn’t tell me everything you know.”
At that time I didn’t have a chance to meet Terry. Their adoptive parents did not really approve of Jody meeting another sibling, and I heard were somewhat disbelieving of our existence. (Terry Niska Watson is also sharing her story in this book.)
Years passed, and I went to live in Europe with my husband. One day, the phone rang, and I was surprised to hear someone speaking English say, “Hi, I’m Linda, and I’m your sister.”
“No, I told her,” I already know about all my siblings. I have two sisters and a brother.” I thought it must be a mistake; there couldn’t possibly be more. She assured me that the state department of human services had helped her locate me because of a medical problem. Her son possibly had a neurological problem and the state helped her locate me in Europe so she could learn about my medical history, which would help the physician diagnose her son. As it turned out, the condition she mentioned was one I had been checked for too. She was my sister. And I was devastated to think there were more of us with similar medical problems.
She shared that she had gone to art school, and that was her primary work; another artist in the family. We kept in contact for several months, and then drifted apart. Her last name is common, and I couldn’t find her again.
Beautiful Terry. I’m so grateful to know her. There are amazing coincidences in our lives. We are both nurses. She works in ICU and is also in school for advanced practice nursing and I’m a pediatric nurse practitioner. We are both artists too. As we have exchanged information, we also learned we both have the same severe allergy to latex. So that must be genetic too. Like Frank, she has a great sense of humor. It is such an amazing story of how similar we have all been, though raised in many different families.
In life, my hope is that I can help a child to learn that being unique is good and we all belong to one world family. First we need to learn about belonging in our families of so many kinds and our community, no matter how apart they seem.
Thoughts that comforted me as a child, still give me peace today: The wonder of life in all its forms; the mystical connection to people we may never meet in life; the air we breathe being the breath of all life; the gentle kindness that humans often share; the beauty of nature and the Universe that surrounds us.
It’s possible there are two more siblings. Someday we may find them, or they find us. Whether we meet or not, we are connected. If only they had a chance to meet our sweet and gentle Frank.
Elizabeth lives with her husband in the Pacific Northwest and is often found with her daughter and four young grandchildren. She is a pediatric nurse practitioner with a special interest in children with disrupted families who may have attachment problems. She is the author of GreenBean: True Blue Family, a story of differences and belonging. You can find her though her website, http://elizabethblake.us